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Merengue

The merengue is a music form for dance most typically associated with the Dominican Republic, which is on the eastern end of the island of Hispañola, just to the west of Puerto Rico.


Photo courtesy of St John's Baptist Church
The origin of merengue is not known definitively. Some say it was invented by Colonel Alfonseca, while others say it was born as a Dominican melody after the Dominican victory at the Battle of Talanquera. Most would agree, though, that the merengue did NOT come from neighboring Haiti.

Yet another theory is that came from Cuba and Puerto Rico in the mid 19th century. During that time, from 1838 to 1849, a dance called URPA or "UPA Habanera" (UPA from Havanna) made its way around the Caribbeann to Puerto Rico and then to the Dominican Republic. This dance had a movement called merengue by Dominicans.

Merengue remained relatively unknown for a few years. Later on, it was well accepted and even Colonel Alfonseca wrote pieces in the new music style with very popular titles like "¡Ay, Coco!", "El sancocho", "El que no tiene dos pesos no baila", and "Huye Marcos Rojas que te coje la pelota".

The basic step of the merengue dance is an extremely simple two-step pattern, but requires a somehow contrary hip movement to the right - which makes it somewhat difficult to learn the dance.

Merengue choreography is as follows: men and woman hold each other in a vals-like position and step to their side in what is known as a "paso de la empalizada" or "stick-fence step". They can then turn clockwise or counterclockwise. This is called Ballroom Merengue in which couples never separated. There is also what is called Figure Merengue (Merengue de Figura) in which dancers also make turns individualy, but never letting go the hand of the partner.

The musical structure of what can be considered the most representative form of merengue consisted of a paseo (walk), the body and the "jaleo". Merengue cibaeno has either two beats or four beats to the bar (2/4 or 4/4 time respectively), although the latter appears to be more common nowadays. In that, the merengue is hardly different from many current musical genres. What sets it apart is the presence of certain traditional signature instruments and how they work in the four beat structure.

Nowadays, genuine merengue only survives in the rural areas. The traditional form of the merengue has changed since the paseo has disappeared. The body has been extended and instead of 8 to 12 beats, sometimes 32 or 48 are used. The jaleo has also changed with the inclusion of exotic rythms.

Naturally, some of the best merengue artists today are from the Dominican Republic. These would include such internationally known artists as Millie Quezada.

Despite its strong association with the Dominican Republic, many Puerto Rican artists have adopted merengue; people such as Elvis Crespo and Olga Tañon, among others.